This Is Plastics: Plastics are Fashion: Recycled Plastics are Transforming the Clothing Industry

Environment

Plastics are Fashion: Recycled Plastics are Transforming the Clothing Industry

Plastics are Fashion: Learn how plastics are vital to making the fashion industry more accessible to all consumers.  

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In part two of this series, learn how plastics are vital to making the fashion industry more accessible to all consumers.  

As consumer preferences change, so does the fashion industry–rapidly evolving to meet demands for affordable and trendy styles. With the advent of “fast fashion” to keep pace, the materials that make our favorite statement and staple pieces have evolved beyond cotton and silk. Fashion brands are increasingly offering outwear, shoes, tops and bottoms made from plastic, both new and recycled. This is shaping up to be more than a trend, as fashion brands realize the feasibility of having a sustainable clothing business that is more environmentally friendly yet capable of adapting to fit consumers’ rapidly changing preferences.

Plastics: The start of fast fashion

While plastic-derived materials, like polyester, have been on the market since the 1970s, the first-ever recycled polyester fleece was produced in 1993. The breakthrough of recycled polyester was just the beginning of recycled material innovation in the clothing industry. In the few decades since, a growing number of manufacturers and designers have transitioned to using recycled plastic feedstock (rPET) to create both stylish and comfortable clothing. Sustainable end markets like these for plastic help reduce waste and create new products that people can continue using. Polyester, both new and recycled, has been essential to the growth of the “fast fashion” industry, which relies on more affordable manufacturing and passes these savings on to consumers.

With shopping trends changing so quickly, it can be difficult for low-income consumers to frequently purchase new and trendy clothing. But fast fashion, enabled by plastic, allows these consumers to purchase affordable, yet fashionable clothing.  And while fast fashion has enabled greater accessibility to trendy fashion styles, the industry is aware of the environmental implications that come with more purchases of cheaper clothing. Sustainable brands like Quince prioritize quality clothing while having sustainability commitments to reduce emissions in manufacturing. Fast fashion giant H&M has also taken steps to source more materials from recycled plastics for its clothing lines.

How brands are finding innovative ways to use plastics

Plastic is already instrumental in making the clothes we wear more accessible and more sustainable. To this point, industry recognizes that valuable plastics should remain in the economy and not in the environment. Brands, retailers, and the plastic industry are increasingly making bold new commitments to recover more plastic waste than ever, in addition to evolving consumer preferences for more environmentally conscious brands and clothing options. Together, the two phenomena are significantly contributing to the tripling of rPET’s projected demand by 2050.

Today, 69% of all clothes are already made up of synthetic fibers, with polyester making up 64% of all fiber production. According to a 2020 report by Textile Exchange, only 14% of all polyester production comes from recycled inputs—predominantly used plastic bottles. And companies are working to keep up with consumers’ changing preferences, all of course with the use of plastic materials.

Some major consumer brands, like Adidas and Reebok, have committed to fully replacing virgin polyester with rPET by 2024 to keep this valuable material inside the economy. Other companies, like Last Bottle Clothing, are taking extra steps to not only divert post-consumer plastic but also reduce the environmental impact of post-consumer clothing by making it from 100% rPET. Advanced recycling technologies chemically recycle polyester fibers into rPET to produce more polyester, creating new clothes from old clothes and extending the product’s lifecycle. With continued efforts like these, plastics can make all clothing recyclable or made from valuable recycled fibers.

Recycled plastic fibers are a perfect fit for environmental goals

Environmentally conscious brands find it essential to understand the full environmental impact of a product and are increasingly turning to plastic as a sustainable resource. According to research from McKinsey, the fashion sector is responsible for about 4% of global emissions of GHG, about the same quantity of GHG emitted per year as the entire economies of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined. Further, the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides during cotton cultivation pollutes the soil, nearby streams and lakes, and potential human water supplies. The industry’s rapid growth has drawn global scrutiny to its supply chain, but using plastic materials, both recycled and new, can continue to reduce the industry’s environmental impact. A 2020 study from the Imperial College London found that plastic performs better than alternatives, like cotton, in a variety of impact areas, including both water use and emissions. For example, to produce a pound of cotton, it takes about 1,400 gallons of water, while recycled polyesters require virtually no water during production and even virgin polyester production only uses small amounts of water as a coolant.

Furthermore, recycled plastic also helps reduce the global carbon emissions derived from the fashion industry. Textile Exchange, an advocacy group for sustainable fibers, found that each kilogram of recycled polyester represents a 70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions when compared to virgin polyester. Many clothing items made from virgin polyester can also be made from recycled polyester, a replacement that reinforces the industry’s focus on environmental goals. At the consumer level, polyester fabrics are more affordable and more durable than traditional materials, like cotton or wool, in addition to requiring less water to launder and maintain.  

According to EPA, textile-to-textile recycling is still in its infancy, with only about 13% of all clothing and shoes recycled. While the plastics industry continues to find creative ways to convert even more plastic waste into the clothing we choose to wear, the fashion industry is showing that it is ready to adapt. Despite only a small amount of clothing being recycled today, plastic has been pivotal to changing the industry, culture, and recognizing that trendy styles coexist with sustainable commitments.

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